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Waco Revisited
By Jean Hay
September 1999

The front page of the August 26, 1999 Bangor (Maine) Daily News is dominated by a photo of an upset Yvonne Hartford of Dexter, as she watches her hay barn and garage go up in flames. The fire was believed to have been electrical in nature, sparked by faulty wiring in the conveyor belt which had just been shut off minutes before, after having been used to load hay bales into the upper reaches of the huge structure.

One spark onto dry hay, and thatís all she wrote.

On the front page of the August 27, 1999 Bangor Daily News, we have a picture of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno next to an article in which she announces a new investigation into the 1993 Waco, Texas, siege of the Branch Davidian compound, in which cult leader David Koresh and about 80 followers, including many children, died during a fire that broke out as military tanks and grenade launchers pumped tear gas into their compound.

It seems, the article tells us, that FBI agents had lobbed some potentially flammable, pyrotechnic tear gas canisters at the compound about six hours before the final assault in the 51-day siege. But those really didnít matter because they were fired in the opposite direction (??) and bounced off a concrete bunker without going off, so they didnít count. That was enough of a reason to deny using them for six years. You understand.

Reno said she was determined to get to the bottom of the cover-up, to find out why she had been lied to for the past six years.

That would be nice to know, but I donít think sheís been asking, or will ask, the right questions.

The FBI has admitted all along that it shot ordinary tear gas canisters into the house itself, the huge wooden structure which they knew ahead of time (they had a spy) had been fortified from the inside with bales of hay. Thatís what we were watching them do on TV, shooting in tear gas, just before they tried to use the tanks as battering rams to get inside.

What I have never heard asked (did I just miss it?) is just how hot a tear gas canister gets when it is shot out of a grenade launcher or the long muzzle of a military tank. After all, the canisters are propelled by an explosion at the butt end. And they are fit in the barrel very snugly. Just the friction they work up against the insides of the muzzle has to heat them up something fierce.

If youíve ever tried to pick up a freshly shot .22 shell or bullet, you know what Iím talking about. You know how hot those little guys get. And bullets and rifle barrels are little compared to what weíre talking about.

Bottom line: Is a freshly-shot tear gas canister hot enough to ignite a tinder-dry bale of hay, by either passing through it or landing on it?

Picture this: A hot canister lands on a bale of hay, sets it on fire, and then begins discharging a load of tear gas into the room. It would be a little hard for anyone to try and put the sucker out. Multiply that scenario by the number of tear gas canisters that we know were used by your government and mine, and the inferno that we saw on television that April 19, 1993 becomes perfectly understandable.

"Before I approved the plan [of attack] I made inquiry as to whether the gas or the devices used for conveying the gas were incendiary and I was told they were not," the AP story quotes Reno as saying. "I was concerned about the possibility of fire started by such devices."

The governmentís line the past six years is that David Koresh and his followers deliberately set the fire themselves, choosing a horrible death by fire over surrendering to the army that surrounded them. Thatís their story, and theyíve stuck to it.

The folks at the Hartford farm were old pros at haying. They had been careful. And still the barn burned down.

My suspicion is that the FBI didnít know enough to be careful. My guess is that none of them had ever handled a bale of hay in their lives. They didnít know enough to consider how hot a normal, ordinary non-pyrotechnic tear gas canister gets when it is shot out of a launcher or the muzzle of a military tank.

Either that, or they simply lied to Attorney General Janet Reno. After all, the wimpy woman AG didnít want anyone to get hurt, especially the children, and the guys in uniform around the compound were tired of waiting for the Branch Davidiansí food and water to run out.

The August 27 AP story quotes Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch as saying, "The credibility of this Justice Department is at an all-time low."

As well it should be.

But that is not the saddest part of all this.

If the new investigation determines that the governmentís tear gas canisters, whether incendiary or not, did indeed start the fatal fire, and the people in charge are finally held accountable for their actions, that admission will be too little, too late. And not just for David Koresh and his followers.

Timothy McVeigh believed in his heart that the United States government deliberately killed all those people in Waco, and that the FBI and other federal agents had literally gotten away with murder. With his very warped and twisted sense of justice, McVeigh reportedly blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, many of them children. It was the second anniversary of the Waco assault. McVeigh made no bones about the fact that he saw his actions as simple retaliation for the governmentís siege on Waco and the death of nearly 100 people, including many children Ė people who, like McVeigh, had plenty of reasons for not trusting their own government.

In a world full of unintended consequences, is it possible those 168 people in Oklahoma might be alive today if this current investigation into the governmentís actions at Waco had been done right six years ago?


This column appeared in the September 1999 issue of the Northern Democrat, edited by Roger Roy, Caribou, Maine.

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